Compassion and Boundaries

My husband and I have a friend, whom I’ll call Jim, whom we met about 18 months ago, as part of our volunteer work. Jim had time for this volunteer work because he’d recently been laid off from his software job. He was happy being a stay-at-home Dad to 2 small kids, and didn’t seem too worried about finding another job, as his wife was making very good money as an attorney. We liked him — he was outgoing, smart and perceptive, had lived many places and done a number of things for work, so he had all kinds of stories.

Then last October, Jim’s wife decided she was done with him. While he was out of town, visiting his elderly parents, she emptied their bank accounts, packed up all their stuff of value, moved, and didn’t pay the rent for that month.  Then she instigated one of the uglier divorces I’ve seen. That left Jim unemployed, broke except for unemployment checks, and homeless.

A mutual friend, Joe, who lives in the Central Valley, let Jim stay rent-free in a Bay Area studio apartment that Joe rented so that he could be near his Peninsula work place a couple of nights a week. The idea was that this living arrangement would give Jim the stability to look for work, without overly inconveniencing Joe. The lease on that studio was up at the end of May, and Joe decided not to renew it, as the timing of his work had changed enough to render it unnecessary. So Jim was now homeless again. It’s not clear that Jim ever looked for work, but in any case, he was still unemployed, as well.

Jim, however, had volunteered to do a big computer project for the organization through which we’d met him. Because we believed in his abilities, as well as the organization’s mission,  we agreed to let him move into our spare bedroom long enough to do it. Jim worked his butt off — pretty much 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with enough time off to sleep and see his kids. We felt like supporting him while he did this work was our contribution to the organization.

When the project ended, my husband and I were unsure of what to do. We didn’t want to just throw Jim into the street — that didn’t seem like the compassionate thing to do. On the other hand, we didn’t want to let him live with us rent-free indefinitely, either, as there were very real costs to us (decreased privacy, increased cleaning and cooking for us, and increased utility bills). So we had some boundaries, as well. Jim couldn’t afford rent, thanks in part to Congress, which was not funding unemployment. So we hit upon the idea of Jim doing handyman work in exchange for rent. (There were a few small things that really needed doing, and I maintain a list of improvements, which would be nice, but never seem important enough to either do myself or to fund.) Jim agreed to this as a fair trade. I gave him my prioritized list, and told him to work down it, asking questions as he went.

But then, for two weeks, he barely did anything at all. He put up a towel rack, nailed in a loose board on the deck, watered half the potted plants once (to be fair, I never asked him to water the plants). I had to nag him to put some things on freecycle, to measure the house for insulation and to shop for the best price online. This was not my idea of of how this was supposed to work.

Meanwhile, my husband, who dutifully goes to a job every day, was getting more and more agitated at Jim’s lack of progress. He never seemed to be looking for work; he resisted calling the VA, or even a contact of my husband’s at the EDD (CA unemployement folks), for help finding work. My stepson, whose job is triaging PC help calls for the Geek Squad, offered to steer IT work Jim’s way, if only Jim would sign up as a provider. Jim never bothered to sign up.

On top of this, we went out of town one Saturday night, and Jim had an, um, overnight guest — who was still there when we arrived home at 3PM — without asking in advance if this would be okay. This was the last straw. 

We knew we had to confront him. My husband spoke for both of us when he said he felt betrayed. [As a friend, who is expert in Transactional Analysis pointed out, a broken agreement is a betrayal.) I was left to give Jim a choice: either figure out how he was going to make up all the time he hadn’t worked for us, and give us a schedule, or move out. He chose to move out, saying that were he in our position, he’d never have asked for a trade. To his credit he did move out within 24 hours, whining at the end that he’d just ‘find the local homeless shelter’! (Actually, he found someone else who was willing to host him within 24 hours, too.)

Even though both my husband and I know we did the right thing, it was still hard. So here are my take-aways:

  •  compassion, feeling for someone else, is part of what makes you human (although this turtle might disagree), so you should offer help to those in need
  • compassion without boundaries allows people to take advantage of you, so you have to know when to stop offering
  • you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped
  • some people just feel they are entitled to be supported, and those people will continue to get kicked till they figure out that they have to contribute, as well
Hollis Polk is a personal coach (, who has been helping people create lives they love for 15 years, using neurolinguistic & hypnotherapy techniques, decision science, clairvoyance & the common sense learned in 20+ years of business. She is an NLP Master Practitioner, hypnotherapist & has a BSE in engineering from Princeton & a Harvard MBA. She is also a successful real estate broker, investor & business owner.